Why isn’t PATCO free?

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, South Jersey drivers are moving away from their cars, at least when crossing the Delaware. Car traffic on the Delaware River Port Authority’s four bridges was down 1.76% in 2012, and PATCO ridership was up 1.6%, in the first full year after a 10% PATCO fare hike and a 25% bridge toll hike (from $4 to $5 round-trip for ordinary cars). So far, so standard Economics 101. But DRPA is missing a bigger opportunity to mode-shift people out of their cars: it can increase the cross-subsidy of PATCO to 100%, and reap the environmental, congestion, and pro-urban benefits of zero-fare transit. And it can do it for only one more dollar in tolls.

PATCO's unnecessary fare system, the FREEDOM card
Governors Christie and Corbett: TEAR DOWN THIS GATE

According to DRPA’s own 2011 Annual Report, PATCO fares in that calendar year generated $24,004,000, while bridge tolls brought in $267,685,000. That order of magnitude difference means that the extra 9.76% revenue generated by half a year of increased tolls is more than PATCO brought in all year. Thus, it stands to reason that another toll hike of approximately the same absolute magnitude (i.e. $5 to $6 for passenger cars) could offset the removal of PATCO fares altogether, in a budget-neutral or budget-positive way for DRPA.

There are two primary risks in this approach. One is that making PATCO free might make it a runaway success, causing unsafe crowding conditions at rush hour. That is a serious concern, but it is the kind of problem we should be glad to have. There are other methods of constricting PATCO demand, mostly through appropriate pricing of PATCO’s vast parking facilities in South Jersey. The NJT Atlantic City Line, which reaches peak load at Lindenwold, is woefully underutilized across the Delaware, and bringing NJT’s $5 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare down into line with PATCO’s current $3 Lindenwold-Philadelphia fare ought to be a DRPA priority in any event. Crowding relief may be the impetus to implement the plans to build an NJT platform at Woodcrest PATCO Station. If crowding is still an issue, NJT Bus Ops can probably be convinced to run extra service to Philadelphia at peak hours, in exchange for the cost savings of truncating to Walter Rand TC in the off hours.

The other is the obvious political problem of selling it to already-unhappy toll paying drivers. My initial uncharitable instinct is to tell them to go pound sand, that their North Jersey brethren are paying $13 to the PANYNJ to cross the Hudson, they can suck up $6. But of course, DRPA can’t quite do that. It can point out that it is now providing a free alternative, but it is also competing against the (ludicrously low $2) Tacony-Palmyra bridge, and might actually lose a fair bit of money as drivers switch modes or switch routes. Again, my first instinct is to declare victory, but in the eyes of people for whom the control of these four bridges is and has been considered a licence to print money (and then disperse it corruptly to pet projects), this is a fate to be avoided. Fortunately for them, there are alternatives. Most pertinently, giving off-peak EZ-Pass drivers a discount from the full rate, which is just good policy, and differentiating toll structures for the strongly-demanded Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges into Center City Philadelphia, while providing slightly lower rates on the off-axis relief routes over the Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges, which again is just good policy. On the other side of the political issue, side, there might be worries out of Collingswood and Haddonfield of Camden’s, er, “undesirables” spilling out from a free PATCO. In this case, my reaction to tell people to go pound sand will be unrestrained: criminals do not ride transit, they drive. Working people take transit, and I refuse in all cases to have good transportation policy held hostage to racism or classism. Fortunately, the on-line communities mostly understand and support the extent to which their own prosperity is linked to the existence and convenience of PATCO.

Taking out the fares and throwing open the gates on PATCO would save payment processing and maintenance costs for DRPA; the 2007 introduction of the FREEDOM card was a step forward from the late 1960s-era magnetic ticketing system, but has not provided the benefits PATCO envisioned. Nor have SEPTA or NJT expressed any interest in adopting the system; on the contrary, PATCO has been making noises about scrapping the FREEDOM card after only 7-8 years in service, and adopting SEPTA’s open (and as-yet unbranded) NPT system, after it rolls out this year. That’s a stunning testimony on PATCO’s evaluation of the success of its own system. DRPA won’t go broke on PATCO’s credit card fees, but they do add up. And the personnel required to collect cash out of fare vending machines, fix broken faregates, and otherwise administer fare collection, all cost DRPA money. And reducing total DRPA expenditures should be considered a major budgetary win, on both sides of the Delaware.

ETA: To directly answer the question posed by my title, i.e. “why isn’t PATCO free now?”, the answer, of course, is that DRPA’s leadership, at the agency level and the political level, is hostage to the windshield perspective mentality that dominates all discussion of transportation issues in this country. (Noted carborne menace Gov. Chris Christie is a notorious perpetrator of this, and he controls half of DRPA’s board.)
Until the idea that politicians and government agencies represent and serve people, and not the cars those people drive, comes back into fashion, PATCO will continue to charge revenue-maximizing fares, discouraging its own ridership, and leaving South Jersey locked in its autocentric spiral.

The Long and Short Of It

It’s almost treated as impolite to mention, but SEPTA’s Regional Rail system has a definite class structure to it. This is apart from, or perhaps parallel to, the actual class divides that separate the communities served, but I’m referring here to the differences created by the most fundamental attribute of the individual lines: length. Short lines and long lines are not in any sense equal. They operate differently, serving different purposes and different markets, and the determination to treat them as equals actually creates distortive effects to the detriment of the entire system.
Continue reading “The Long and Short Of It”

Winter Storm Nemo update

Local transit still looks in good shape, but here in South Philadelphia, there is a thin layer of ice on all exposed surfaces, so expect all modes of travel to be VERY SLOW this morning, until the salt trucks can get out to do their thing.  Also, exercise special care out there on platforms.

Amtrak is only running as far north as New York, but does not anticipate altering schedules on this side of Penn Station. With NYC area airports closed, New York O/D traffic might have been bridged to the open airports in Philadelphia and Baltimore with the equipment that isn’t running to Boston tonight, but of course there is no standard protocol between the airlines and Amtrak for such an operation.

UPDATE 7:10a: SEPTA is reporting a few scattered bus detours due to local road conditions. NJT has suspended North Jersey and Mercer County bus service.

Catching up, and the incoming storm

I’ve been out of town for the last three weeks, and it’s been quite busy in the Delaware Valley. To recap:

  • The big news is SEPTA holding the first public meetings for the newest incarnation of the King of Prussia Rail project. With the KoP Business Improvement District as co-sponsors and motivating forces, this latest version of the #1 item on the regional wishlist looks much more likely to succeed than its predecessors, if for no other reason than that this time, it’s being investigated as a standalone project on its own merits. The public presentation materials are online at http://kingofprussiarail.com/virtualmeeting.html; the current focus is on alignment alternatives between the existing Norristown High Speed Line and the Mall complex.
  • New SEPTA timetables are out, and the changeover to the new Regional Rail schedules will take place this Sunday, February 10th. The Transit Division will follow suit on the February 17th and 18th.
  • In the ongoing fights against petty corruption and car culture, nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were indicted on charges related to ticket-fixing. With all but one of the active judges indicted and therefore automatically suspended without pay, the State Senate is considering legislation to abolish the court entirely, and fold responsibility into the Municipal Court docket. If the end of widespread ticket fixing improves the safety of our streets, we are very much in favor of these developments (in addition to corrupt city officials getting nailed to the wall, which is its own reward).
  • A gas leak at Fern Rock TC disrupted Broad Street Subway, bus, and Regional Rail service near the end of Wednesday morning’s rush hour. SEPTA’s ticktock and apology to disrupted riders was up on septa.org by the next morning, and is an exemplar of the genre. We applaud the clear communication with riders, which is, ah, traditionally lacking at SEPTA. May the trend continue.
  • An approaching winter storm today and tomorrow has yet to produce any SEPTA service disruptions, but NJT is cross-honoring bus, rail, and light rail fares today and tomorrow. Given that the Philadelphia area is only expected to get about 4-6 inches of snow, while New York gets 12″ and Boston gets 30″+, expect local transit to remain relatively undisrupted, especially compared to our neighbors to the northeast (best of luck to them!). Monitor SEPTA.org, RidePatco.org, NJTransit.com, and the Twitter feeds for service advisories. Be especially careful around slippery platform edges, consider leaving work early today if possible, to get out ahead of the storm’s arrival, and plan ahead in case you need to seek alternate transportation. Stay safe out there!

Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?

SEPTA is performing maintenance on the Market-Frankford Line in Center City this weekend, and will be running shuttle buses from 11th Street to 30th street all day Saturday and Sunday while through service is suspended. Additionally, single tracking will occur 8th St-15th St after 22:00 Friday, and 8th St-13th St Saturday and Sunday. See the Service Advisory on septa.org for all the details.

While I approve of SEPTA taking proactive measures to achive and maintain a state of good repair, and a full weekend shutdown will give plenty of time for repairs too complex to be done overnight, I have to object to the use of shuttle buses to bridge the gap between the 69th-30th and FTC-13th services. The Market St corridor is the main commercial axis of the City of Philadelphia, and is served by three rail transit modes: the MFL, the Subway-Surface trolleys, and the RRD Center City tunnel. On weekdays, each serves a different travel market and runs at capacity at rush hour, with each complementing the other two. On the weekend, with none of the three running anywhere near capacity, it should be possible to compensate for the loss of the one solely with the other two, without resort to busing.

Continue reading “Shuttle buses replace the MFL this weekend. Why?”

Thomson’s ghost

SEPTA had a rough morning yesterday on the Paoli/Thorndale Line, with a broken rail taking one track out of service during the morning rush. Shuttle buses provided service between Thorndale and Downingtown, but the eye-opener of the morning came from this tweet SEPTA sent out:

That made quite a bit of sense; it let SEPTA concentrate on shuttling peak-direction passengers out of Thorndale parking lot, and Amtrak got to be a good host to SEPTA passengers on its line. And on Amtrak as on SEPTA, peak direction is towards Philadelphia in the morning, so there were plenty of empty seats on Keystone 605, although it did arrive in Harrisburg 19 minutes late.

But this co-operation in a pinch, while admirable, points out a defect in our transit system: it doesn’t happen every day. On the outer Main Line, Philadelphia-bound commuters are forced to choose between SEPTA, which is cheaper, more frequent, makes the local stops Thorndale, Whitford, and Malvern, and directly serves Suburban and Market East Stations, versus Amtrak, which is significantly faster and more comfortable, but more expensive and less convenient to Center City. This makes little sense for the riders, and less sense for the Commonwealth, which is subsidizing both services. A better system would permit passholders to ride either SEPTA or Amtrak. Metrolink and Amtrak California co-operate like this in Los Angeles: they call it the Rail2Rail program. It makes more sense there to let Metrolink passholders on Amtrak trains, since the prices are closer and the schedules sparser. But letting Amtrak riders ride SEPTA trains that fit their needs better is a win all around.

The Thomson of my title is Edgar Thomson, first Chief Engineer of the PRR. Needless to say, when Harrisburg trains and Paoli trains all ran under the PRR/PC banner, Paoli-Philadelphia passholders could ride any train they pleased. A sad reminder that, despite how far we’ve come since the age of steam, a few things really were better.

Spoked wheels when you want them

One of the things I missed when I was out of town last month was the announcement of the City’s new bikeshare program (about time!), with rollout scheduled by Spring 2014.  The Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) is taking the lead on the two year standing-up process, in which time it hopes to leverage $3MM in city money into raising $6MM in outside funds, to finance a network of ~1100 bikes between Vine, South, and 41st (with a few in a satellite cluster around Temple’s campus).

Unsurprisingly to anyone who has seen the explosive success of bikeshare programs throughout the world, much of the early criticism of the project has been that the initial rollout is much too small (650 bikes in the first year), and almost certain to be oversubscribed at peak hours.  Similar outcry has come over the circumscribed boundaries where pods will be found: Center City and the campuses get an amenity, but not the neighborhoods that can provide all-hours usership.  Well, count me in as well, on both criticisms.  Now, I understand that the number of pods the city can afford necessarily defines the boundaries. The density of pods needed for the system to be convenient and effective seems to be fixed, and very high, based on global experience.  The City cannot skimp on pods in Washington Square to provide bikes to Queen Village without harming the system.  But to me, this is an argument that the City needs to assemble more money to go forward.  Politics may be the art of the possible, but while City Council is burning over $1MM to squat on property in Point Breeze, it might decide to begrudge the Mayor enough cash to launch bikeshare properly.

What am I defining as “properly”?  Glad you asked.  Bikeshare, while it’s certainly usable for commuting, is meant to be more of a casual trips and errands service: rent a bike for a 15 minute trip one way, then return in the other direction when you’re done, with only mild peaks in usage by hour or direction.  I dispute that Center-City-and-Campuses-Only is going to attract much additional bike usage; most trips wholly within that catchment can be made best by walking, and the rest can be made by subway or bus. That ability is why Center City is so attractive (and so expensive) in the first place. Serving adjacent neighborhoods, where the origins and destinations spread out a bit, is more in the sweet spot for the bike mode, especially on “crosstown” trips like Graduate Hospital to University City, or Northern Liberties to Fairmount. Without one or both endpoints in Center City’s density, more trips end up like these, a bit far (though not impossible) to walk, and with SEPTA’s hit-or-miss crosstown bus service as an unappealing alternative. (I challenge you to argue that service on either the 40 or 64 is good. I need a laugh today.) Even trips between Center City and the adjacent neighborhoods by bus can be rather unpleasant, given buses crowded with riders traveling longer distances (the 17 is nearly useless north of Christian St during rush hour, packed to the gills with Point Breeze and Girard Estate riders).

I recommend that any bikeshare network aim to have sufficient coverage from Girard through Washington east of 52nd (plus Temple) by the middle of its second year. That would be a good basis for a well-used — and therefore high revenue-earning — system. It would vastly increase the bicycle mode share, and take a lot of pressure off local SEPTA routes that need it most. In fact (and this is a novel suggestion that will probably brand me forever a heretic at Bicycle Coalition HQ), SEPTA may want to run the bike share program, or at least integrate membership into its fare structure. 1234 Market St. may have the most to gain from seeing bike sharing become a runaway success, eroding car ownership in the city while reducing its own cost of providing quality service to the region’s core.

The political problem of Philadelphia

Today’s post isn’t directly transportation-focused. It’s about the politics that comprises the backdrop our struggles take place against. I’m sure others have said what I have to say with more eloquence and sobriety, but this is my version, and if I’m going to have to refer to it in the future, I ought to spell it all out at least once.

The big problem with being Philadelphia is being Philadelphia. Continue reading “The political problem of Philadelphia”

11th hour Fiscal Deal restores transit tax benefit for suburban riders

As noted already by David Alpert and Ben Kabak, the agreement passed yesterday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” restores a tax benefit to transit commuters that had expired at the beginning of 2012. Transit riders will be able to pay $240 per month in pre-tax dollars, saving them and their employers money. This is up from the $125 per month that was the maximum throughout 2012, after Congress failed to renew the benefit, and the $230 per month maximum that was in place 2009-2011; it restores parity with the parking benefit, which went up from $230 to $240 at the beginning of 2012. Unfortunately, the restoration is only in place for 2013, and extending it further is the responsibility of the 113th Congress; a dismaying prospect given the record of the 112th.

The new benefit is a huge benefit for SEPTA Regional Rail riders, virtually all of whom have been forced by their benefit managers to pay the first $125 with their benefit cards and the rest out of pocket for the last year. $240 is enough to pay for any monthly pass SEPTA offers. It will also cover NJT’s Atlantic City Line out to Hammonton, or an NJT River Line + PATCO or PATCO + SEPTA City Transit daily commute, or a monthly pass on Amtrak’s Keystone Service from Downingtown to Center City. Basically, this is a huge win for responsible suburban commuters to Center City, and a good foot forward to start 2013.

And one last note: if you’re interested in signing up for this benefit, as a commuter or as an employer, DVRPC’s program has changed its name from TransitChek to RideECO.

Holiday Schedules

As a reminder, SEPTA is running modified schedules for the holiday season.

  • City transit schedules have been adjusted for the weekdays through December 31st.
  • Christmas Day will have a Sunday/Holiday schedule on the transit side and less than that on Regional Rail.
  • Extra late-night Regional Rail service has been added [PDF] for New Year’s Eve partygoers leaving Center City after the midnight fireworks.
  • New Year’s Day will have a Sunday/Holiday schedule on both the transit and Regional Rail sides of the system.

PATCO has posted special schedules for Christmas Eve [PDF] and Christmas Day [PDF].

NJ Transit will be running Sunday/Holiday service on the Atlantic City Line and River Line on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and modified schedules on South Jersey bus lines; details can be found here.

Here at STP, we wish you the blessings of the season, and a safe and warm holiday, wherever it may take you.